Policy Analysis No. 137

Subsidies to the Arts: Cultivating Mediocrity

By Bill Kauffman
August 8, 1990

Executive Summary

There is always conflict between government and artists, and no one knows it better than the East and Central Europeans. Vaclav Havel’s plays were banned in Prague, as were the novels of Milan Kundera. Hungarian novelist George Konrad fought the “state supervision” and “state prizes”(1) that were corrupting his native literature. Members of the Polish punk-rock band Dezerter were in and out of prison because they insisted on playing songs that the authorities had not sanctioned.

Fittingly, at the same time that Czechs and Hungarians and Poles are throwing off tyranny’s shackles and liberating their artists, the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. government’s ministry of culture, is coming under sustained attack for the first time in its 25-year existence.

Three recent and highly publicized grants have blotched the NEA’s reputation. The first was a grant of $30,000 to Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, sponsor of a traveling exhibition of photographs, some of them homoerotic, by the late Robert Mapplethorpe. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., canceled the Mapplethorpe show in order not to offend the NEA and jeopardize future funding. “It was never an aesthetic decision,” explained then-director of the Corcoran, Christina Orr-Cahall. “I have great respect for Mapplethorpe’s work… . It was the federal funding.”(2)

The second grant was to Andres Serrano for an exhibit that included a photograph of a plastic crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist’s urine. Inelegantly titled “Piss Christ,” Serrano’s image enraged many Christians, who charged that the NEA was subsidizing blasphemy and mockery of their faith.

The third disputed grant went (via the conduit of the New York State Council on the Arts) to a Manhattan theater called The Kitchen, which sponsored “Post Porn Modernist,” a performance by Annie Sprinkler, star of blue movies. While masturbating on stage, Ms. Sprinkle sardonically noted, “Usually I get paid a lot of money for this, but tonight it’s government funded.”(3)

The Mapplethorpe, Serrano, and Sprinkle grants prompted several members of Congress, notably Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), to seek restrictions on the kinds of art eligible for NEA subsidy. A modified version of the Helms amendment was finally enacted; it bars the endowment from funding work that is “obscene, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts which, when taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”(4)

The debate over the restriction was spirited but maddeningly oblique, for it begged a very basic question: should the NEA even exist? Should we learn the lesson of the erstwhile Soviet bloc—that art and politics don’t mix?

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Bill Kauffman is author of the novel Every Man A King (Soho Press/Farrar, Straus & Giroux). He is at work on a second novel and a book about American writers and politics. His articles have appeared in theNation, theWall Street Journal, Chronicles, and other publications. He lives in his hometown of Batavia, New York.